Three Steps to Making Better Choices

Swedenborg Foundation

By Hanna Hyatt

Dear God,

How are people so awful?

Police shooting unarmed man . . . refugees . . . another massacre . . . bomb threat . . . terror . . . death.

Being entrenched in these nasty ideas, and living in a world where these things happen every week, fills people with all kinds of terror. This terror sometimes leads to people looking to God for some answers.

According to Swedenborg’s theology, people have to be free to be horrible because they have to be free to be good. People must be free to do bad things and good things, so that they can freely choose to love and follow the good stuff and reject the bad stuff.

(If you’d like to know more about Swedenborg’s theology of freedom, check out this page on divine providence. Or, if you’re the visual type, there’s a quick video overview on our offTheLeftEye YouTube channel and a more in-depth discussion in “How You End Up in Heaven or Hell.”)


When people are choosing between good and evil, Swedenborg describes three degrees of decision-making: love, thought, and action. The first step has to do with what we love or value; these are the feelings that, for better or for worse, drive everything we do. In the second step, the love that drives a person connects with their thoughts (“I could do the dishes so no one else has to suffer through them”); and the third step is about what we actually do. Each of these degrees of decision-making helps people connect the things they love with the things they do—and it can lead to good things or to bad things, depending on the person.

Step One: Love

People are all motivated by love, even when they do awful things that destroy something beautiful. People can be motivated by every love that exists in the world: domination, success, fear, horror, helping, leading and guiding others—the list never ends.

Swedenborg says that because people are in this jumbled world, they have a mix of all sorts of loves. They love thousands of things every moment. So a person could be motivated by a good (selfless) love in one decision, and then a bad (selfish) love in the next. That’s just part of being human. But he also says that over time, we will tend toward one type of love or motivation more than any other—what he calls a “dominant love.”

Step Two: Thought

Before we bring love to life by acting on it, we must start to plan or dwell on certain thoughts. Swedenborg notes that people have many loves, and usually people cannot know which love inspires them to think, process, and plan in every moment. The responsibility of human beings on earth is to be careful of the thoughts we entertain; if our goal is to be loving or kind, we should reject thoughts of harming others.

It’s impossible to constantly control individual thoughts, but it’s possible to control the ideas one invites back to stay for a while. Thoughts create a bridge between loving something and doing something about it, and this bridge comes in the form of a plan or developed idea. Usually, these thoughts are fun for the brain to dwell on; fun ideas are fun because of the love that influences them—but for a bad person, it’s the negative thoughts that are fun to dwell on, and for a good person, it’s the loving, caring thoughts.

Step Three: Action

Acting on loves happens in good and bad ways. Someone can love hurting other people, think about and plan ways to hurt others, and then act on that love, making it real and impacting others in potentially awful ways. Someone could love sharing with their neighbor, and think about ways to make delicious food to share with their family, and in that decision, they are acting on that love.

Swedenborg notes that our responsibility lies primarily in action—we can control our actions much more easily than we can control what we love. If everyone could easily control their loves, the world would be a much different place.

In most ways, this is a comforting thought. We are responsible for the actions we take, not the thoughts that wander into our heads or an occasional wish for acclaim or power, even though those aren’t things we would want to rule our lives.

So . . . Why Do People Make Terrible Decisions?

People make awful decisions because they dwell on awful ideas that come from terrifying loves. They are responsible for their actions, because they are acting on wrong and/or harmful ideas that they love. Every person has the ability to do awful things. It’s a necessary choice for people to have, because without the choice, people wouldn’t be free.

Swedenborg says that God allows for terrible things to happen to preserve this most-important freedom for humanity. These bad situations aren’t always hopeless—they also present a chance for humankind to step up and love the people around them, which is why people create GoFundMe accounts for survivors of tragedy or “Take Them a Meal” accounts for people with hardships.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” —Fred Rogers

People have freedom in their response to horrible situations, to turn negative situations into an opportunity for growth or love. People are free to act, think, and love to the best of their abilities.

Changing for goodness’ sake

 by Rev. Nathan Gladish


Is it easy or hard to make changes? It’s both, of course. Sometimes the hardest changes are the best and most rewarding. I have a simple saying when attempting to make a difficult but important change: “It may not be easy, but it will be worthwhile.” One of my favorite teachings of the New Church supports this: “Nothing whatever takes place, not even the smallest thing, except in order that good may come out of it” (Secrets of Heaven 6574). The Lord wants us to change for goodness’ sake. He wants the best for us. As He tells us in Jeremiah, He has plans for us, “For peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11).

Our efforts to change can be easier using a step-by-step method. So many things go on behind the scenes—details we don’t easily see, schedule, or monitor such as unconscious attitudes, feelings and influences. Fortunately, the Lord is overseeing the whole intricate process, but we need to do our part. He invites us to take initiative and use our freedom, rationality and talents to make changes. For me, it helps to have an overarching, systematic plan to follow.

I live in Motor City, where the auto industry pioneered systems for step-by-step change. Think of the complexity of an automobile assembly line, bringing together thousands of unique parts in order to manufacture a fully functioning car. When the steps of the whole procedure are clearly defined, all the people and aspects of the system can work together toward the common goal.

Current self-help literature overflows with suggestions about the number of steps of change and what they involve. Some experts recommend as few as three steps. Others identify more details, such as the famous twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. One model I’ve used extensively in my counseling practice comes from a book called Changing for Good by Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente. Based on a large study conducted in the 1990s, the results outline a framework of six stages, each with its defining attitude.

As you read the chart below, which stage and attitude applies to you?

STAGES OF CHANGE Defining Attitude
1. Pre-contemplation “I don’t need (or want) to change.”
2. Contemplation “I’m thinking about changing; I might change.”
3. Preparation “I’ve decided to change; I’m developing plans.”
4. Action “I’m actively making changes based on my plans.”
5. Maintenance “I made the changes I want; now I’m maintaining my gains.”
6. Termination “I’m free from a long-standing problem.”


Each stage of change has its unique qualities and opportunities. They apply to all sorts of situations and to people of all ages. And at any given point in life, you could be at a different state in the process of working on various changes.

Now look at the following chart showing the steps of repentance as identified in the New Church teachings of True Christianity 530. I’ve added my own interpretation of the defining attitudes that go with them.

1. Self Exploration “I’m examining and evaluating my spiritual states and needs for change.”
2. Recognition “I see something false or evil in myself that needs to change.”
3. Acknowledgement “I accept responsibility for my part in the falsity or evil as well as for my part in plans to change.”
4. Prayer “I’m actively turning to the Lord for help, including studying His Word for inspiration, motivation, and for tools to use in effective change.”
5. Stop the Old “I’m ceasing and desisting from the old behavior with its thoughts and feelings.”
6. Begin Anew “I’m living in a new way, free from a spiritually debilitating problem.”


As a counselor, I love seeing the relationship between these two models. Both address similar concepts in the essential human process of change. Taken together, they form a framework for making effective and lasting change.

It’s common to have anxiety about change. You might think, “Nothing will change,” “Things may get worse,” “Change won’t last,” or a thousand other pesky ideas. A simple set of steps can provide perspective, reduce these fears, and increase the sense of motivation to pursue healthy change.

The Lord really wants you to experience positive and lasting change, and He will help all the way. He’s working behind the scenes, “always present with everyone, urging and pressing to be received” (True Christianity 766). Whatever you receive from His love and wisdom can be used to make significant improvements. If you follow the steps He wants you to take, you will see improvements in various areas of your life. So don’t fear. Trust His constant presence and leadership, His oversight of the intricate details of life. Then take the steps of change toward greater happiness and peace.

Read an example of blending the two plans for change

By Rev. Nathan Gladish, assistant pastor of Oak Arbor Church and principal of Oak Arbor School in Rochester, MI. He is also a licensed counselor.


“All the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.”

Heaven and Hell 403